My second report on the recent Cambridge conference Crisis, what crisis? The long ninth century focuses on three papers looking at the concept of crisis from a more textual perspective. First up was Nora Berend on The concept of Christendom: a product of crisis?. This was a very neat take on when christianitas came to include Christendom as one of its meaning: the creation of a self-identification of all believers. Some scholars have seen this as a creation of the eleventh century reform papacy, others have seen it as replacing the idea of ecclesia from the ninth century. Its often been assumed that the papacy took the lead in this new self-definition, and thats it connected with hostility to the Muslims. The late ninth century pope John VIII (872-882) has been seen as playing a key role: Dominique Iogna-Prat has argued for his reign as being a turning point.
Nora was looking at Johns letters, which were written at a time when the Arabs were increasingly powerful in Italy: they controlled Sicily and had bases on the Italian mainland. The idea of Christendom and its defence turns up in them, but mainly as a way of universalizing the defence of Rome and the papal state. It was also used by John in complaints about bad Christians who were allying with the Saracens, such as Count Lambert of Spoleto. (As I indicated in the previous post, there was evidently quite a lot of that going on in late ninth-century Italy). John told Lambert he should instead be working for the defence of the lands of St Peter and the whole of Christendom.
In other words, the concept of Christendom is a way of turning up the rhetoric to make local threats seem significant to outsiders. Nora also pointed out that the Saracens tend to be regarded as military rather than a religious threat. John VIII is keen to depict a crisis, with claims of desecration, the killing of priests and nuns, his own persecution etc, by the abominable, savage, thieving, sons of fornication, locust-like pagans/Ishamelites/Saracens/enemies of the Cross of Christ, along with those who are Christian in name only. But he doesnt show Islam actually as a religion, as an independent form of belief. Its not primarily a religious war were dealing with here: Christendom as a concept is just being used for a particular political goal.
Deflating of crises proved to be something of a theme of the two other historical papers as well. Firstly, we had Máire Ní Mhaonaigh on A cultural crisis? The nature of learning in Irelands Viking Age. This was looking at three alleged effects that the Viking raiding had on Ireland a shift of scholarship from northern to southern Ireland, a cessation of learned activity (especially in the C10) and a move into writing in Irish and away from Latin. She was arguing that this supposed crisis was more apparent than real. Though the dating of some texts is problematic, manuscripts show scholarly continuity for example, the Mac Durnan Gospels from the early tenth century are in very similar script to the Book of Armagh from the early eighth century, suggesting a continued scribal tradition. This is despite the fact that Armagh suffered repeated raids in the ninth century. (Though when you hear that in 832 Armagh was plundered three times in a month, you do start wondering exactly how thorough the plundering was).
Ní Mhaonaigh then went on to argue that it wasnt just at Armagh that scholarship continued. The suggestion that the community on Iona ended after 807 (relocating to Kells) doesnt seem to hold up. The bishop poet of Kildare, Orthanach ua Caellama, kept writing, despite Kildare being plundered and half burnt in 836. (She also mentioned that the Kildare army had been plundering the community of Tallaght in 824, reminding us that its not just Vikings who attack monasteries). Another poet, Mael Muru Othna (d. 887) came from Fahan, Co. Donegal, showing yet another region with continued cultural activity.
Ní Mhaonaigh was more open to the suggestion of a move towards the vernacular, although she pointed out that it was already significant in the pre-Viking period. Possibly the Viking influence was here part of a wider pattern of changes she suggested that may have been an exodus of scholars to Francia in the early ninth century. But another factor was the beginnings of Irish court literature: for example, the king-bishop of Cashel, Cormac mac Cuilennain, gathered a group of intellectuals around him and set up a scriptorium in Cashel. There was a strengthening of vernacular writing, but that shouldnt necessarily be taken as a sign that Latin was weakening indeed Ní Mhaonaigh argued that some of the new developments of intellectual life in the period would have impressed Alfred. She ended, though, by admitting that it was very hard to counter popular image of the Vikings as looters of manuscripts, and to the biggest laughs of the conference, played the trailer for a new animated film, The Secret of Kells. [Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find the specific trailer she played – it doesn’t seem to be the main one on the film’s website].
Finally, we had Rosamond McKitterick on Representations of crisis in ninth-century Francia. This was a paper covering familiar ground to Carolingianists, pointing out that if we read many of the ninth-century annals without nineteenth and twentieth century preconceptions, we mainly get an impression of Vikings as an ordinary, if non-Christian people. Theyre not just bands of marauding pillagers, but polities interacting diplomatically with Carolingian rulers. Rosamond was also playing down the significance of the Frankish political developments at the end of the ninth century, at one point referring to the Transformation of the Carolingian World (as a parallel to the Transformation of the Roman World). This may be overstating the case rather for my taste, but there was a valid point that if you start by seeing a crisis at the end of the ninth century, then its all too easy to presume that the Vikings must be somehow responsible.
Rosamond also raised the question of how a crisis should be defined: should we be thinking of it in a medical sense as a short, sharp shock, or was it more of a longue durée? I raised the point in questions about the idea of crisis as performative: that a crisis existed when someone said there was one loudly enough. I got this idea of crisis as subjective from scholarship on modern crises of masculinity and I still think its a very useful concept. In particular, it potentially gives us a way to get beyond some of the problems of deciding whether there was or was not a crisis in the ninth century. Its useful to try and make objective assessments of whether there was economic growth or not in particular regions, but that doesnt necessarily translate neatly into how people felt. As the UK at the moment shows, the overall state of the economy, the economic position of particular individuals within that economy, and their confidence about the future are only weakly correlated.
I think its perfectly possible to argue that on balance the Vikings had less of an impact on western Europe in the ninth century than the Franks had had in the late eighth century. Its just that we have no Saxon or Avar historians to tell us about the crisis the Carolingians created. But that doesnt exclude the Vikings having had a devastating impact on some particular regions (northern Scotland is one obvious example) or provoking a deep sense of crisis in some people. Alcuins writings on the sack of Lindisfarne clearly show this, for example. Again, modern parallels may be useful to start us thinking about such matters: how the demonising of enemies can be combined with attempts to deal with them in ordinary ways, to give us the apparent oxymoron of the moderate Taliban or Ronald Reagan negotiating with the evil empire. The role of the media and politicians in creating crises is also always worth bearing in mind. But so too is the shock effect of particular forms of violence. Ive written before, for example, about the fact that the 11th of September attacks dont look that destructive on a historical scale and I still think that holds true. But a historian in 2100 is going to have to try to understand the subjective threat felt by millions of Americans thousands of miles away from New York if theyre going to explain the USs foreign policy in the early twenty first century. A crisis is a hard concept to pin down and analyse even with modern amounts of evidence: its not surprising that we struggle to define and assess it for the ninth century.